July 14, 2010

Killing Fields & S21

Another sad day. We took a tuk tuk (our driver was named was James) to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. $2 got us into the most surreal historical site I’ve ever visited. Before us stood a 50 m high monument, a memorial ‘supa’ with 17 floors full of human bones. It displays more than 8000 human skulls of victims and their ragged clothes. These were the bones exhumed a few years after the Khmer Rouge regime fell and the fields were discovered. Prisoners came to this former orchard to be ‘liquidated’, having spent time at the S21 prison in Phom Penh. Prisoners were peasants, workers, intellectuals, ministers, khmer diplomats, foreigners, women and children; all believed to be ‘unpure’ and not representative of the Khmer Rouge ideal. Historians believe that between 1.8 and 3 million people were murdered during the 4 year reign of the Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot regime.(Thousands of mass graves have not been exhumed yet and therefore the death toll varies considerably according to different historians). After seeing the monument we walked along a path through the fields. The area is very overgrown and actually quite peaceful, with wild flowers growing around a lake and butterflies fluttering by. Its hard to imagine that over 40 years ago up to 100 people were being bludgeoned, beheaded, shot and beaten to death daily where we stood. There were large potholes and craters in the earth around the path; just some of the exhumed mass graves. Over 8000 bodies have been officially exhumed, with new ones literally popping up daily out of the earth. With each new rain bones and articles of clothing resurrect themselves out of the soil, sporadically appearing around the fields. The museum has let these things be and we walked over many bones and teeth as we made our way around. There were specifically labelled areas such as “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads”, “Mass grave of more than 100 victims, women and children whose majority were naked” and “Killing tree against which executioners beat children.” At this one I broke down, I just couldn’t bear to imagine the brutality that unfolded here. It didn’t help that there was a school nearby and we could hear children laughing and playing during their lunch break. What kind of noises were coming from this place all those years ago? We walked along the lake and were met by a little boy who was begging from the other side of the fence. “Please mam, some money?” I couldn’t help myself and offered some cookies instead, which he happily wolfed down. Further along we were met by some more children who all begged in unison, repeating lines they had obviously recited a million times to other tourists. “Please mam, some money so that we can go to school? We just need $1 each!” Instead I offered them cookies too and they accepted those less willingly. One of the girls asked for a pen, so we gave her that and her eyes nearly popped out of their sockets! She was so excited! The other girl eyed up Chris’s beaded bracelet and so we gave her that too. She was jumping up and down with excitement, which was further escalated by me giving her my hair tie as well. We felt guilty for not bringing along more pens and simple things like that, these kids were so happy! I would have given them $100 each if I knew it would go directly to their education. The guide books warned us against giving money to begging children as it was usually a scam and they would never reap the benefits of it. Thankfully we could give what little we had and know it put a smile on their adorable little sad faces. It was a brief period of happiness in our otherwise upsetting day!
We then rode to the S21 Prison, officially called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was in operation between 1975-1979. Originally a high school, the building was converted into a prison designed for detention, interrogation, inhumane torture and killing of detainees after confessions (often faked) were taken. As if on cue, dark clouds rolled over the compound as we walked in and a thunder storm ensued. It gave it an even more terrifying atmosphere as everything became dark and spooky. We watched an hour long film on the Khmer Rouge regime and the personal experiences of a few of the victims. There was even a filmed interview with a former Khmer Rouge ‘security assistant’ who told of beatings and executions with a strange grin on his face, as if he had completely detached himself from the things he was talking about. As we walked out of the movie room we noticed the floor was stained with blood and the walls blemished with scratches and marks. Everything has been left as it was, nothing cleaned away or sugar coated. It was still raining as we walked towards the blocks with the holding cells. Each classroom was divided into small cells by brick walls; the first floor and upper floors were used for large cells where many prisoners were crowded together (the images made me compare it to the pictures of African slaves packed onto the ships) Some of the windows were panelled with glass to minimise the sound of prisoner’s screams heard outside the facility in times of torture. The balcony along the building was closed off with barbed wire, so that prisoners couldn’t commit suicide by jumping off. I was really on edge the whole time, jumping every time someone appeared from around a dark corner or out of a cell. There were no lights in the prison and it stank of stale blood and wood. Each cell was really tiny and many had no windows, just a peek hole and thick chains on the floor to which prisoners were permanently attached by the foot. There was another room which displayed mug shots of each prisoner who had passed through S21; men and women of all ages and children who didn’t look a day over 7. They usually spent between 2-4 months in the prison before being executed at the Killing Fields. We took a few photos but it felt immoral somehow, like we shouldn’t be there in the first place. It felt so real, like the prisoners were still living there and had just been taken away for a little while so that we could have a look around; a peek into their abysmal lives. Only 7 prisoners were found alive on Liberation Day in 1979 and all of these people had used their skills- such as painting or photography- to stay alive. It was a truly harrowing experience but I’m glad that we decided to see it. It gave us a more rounded understanding of the history of Cambodia, even if that meant feeling really down for a day. It sure makes me appreciate my little peaceful rock in the Caribbean sea that much more.

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